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March 15, 2008, Volume 15 Nr. 8, Issue 239

Putting It Where The Sun Does Shine.  Ending Solar Impotence.  

In 1995 our family added a small addition to our modest home.  We finally had a living room after living in a 16 X 24 foot woodstove home for 10 years.  We incorporated four solar panels, 12 volt d.c. photovoltaic power generators into the house expansion budget.  We were realistic enough to understand that the solar panels would not generate enough electricity to significantly reduce the electric utility bill.  Nor were we proceeding under the delusion that the four solar 55-watt panels would pay for themselves over their lifetime.  Nonetheless, we moved forward with the project by purchasing locally not only the four Siemens (German) solar panels, but also a 60 ampere charge controller, six high capacity Trojan T105 lead acid batteries and a solar tracker which would allow the panels to track the sun overhead for maximum solar power generation.  

Thirteen years later the solar panels are still putting out their rated power.  While the storage batteries are far beyond their anticipated life expectancy of 5 to 7 years, they still provide adequate power for when the sun does not shine and more importantly, when the power goes out.  Power outages are common in the hills of rural Vermont with very strong wind guts, blizzards and summer lightning storms.  Looking back, if we had purchased four solar panels every year starting with the initial four, we would have a massive fifty-two solar panel array and would be producing enough power, perhaps, to consistently put power back into the utility grid recouping some of the funds used for paying for them.  Unfortunately, the photovoltaic panels would have cost $23,400 and require a big upgrade in handling the higher amperage produced.  The solar electrical system and net metering necessary to safely put power into the utility power grid would also have to be installed at significant added expense.  

Twenty-three years after the installation of the original four solar panels, I decided that I would purchase a small 13 watt portable solar panel to use when taking my low power (QRP) amateur (ham) radio station into the field.  I looked on the Internet to see what was available and at what price.  I quickly found what I was looking for.  Not surprisingly, but quite disappointingly, I found that all of the available portable 12 or 13 watt solar panels were made in China.  The more I looked, the more I discovered Chinese solar panels, charge controllers and batteries.  They were everywhere. I concluded that China had initiated a plan to quickly become the dominant world player in the research, manufacture, production and distribution of photovoltaic panels and supporting electronics.  So what has changed in the photovoltaic marketplace since 1995?

A Nation Sets a Goal

Renewable Energy Dot Com Online in a post dated May 23, 2007, reported that,

The biggest surprise in 2006 was the dramatic growth in PV production in China.  Last year, China passed the U.S., which first developed modern solar cell technology at Bell Labs in New Jersey in the 1950s, to become the world’s third largest producer of the cells -- trailing only Germany and Japan.

In my search for portable solar panels I could not find a single product that was produced in the United States.  I did, however, find many dozens of websites selling Chinese made panels.  The sources of these Chinese panels are flooding the Internet.  Understandably so as,

Chinese President Hu Jintao's government to set some ambitious goals for solar power. Last year, China's solar power consumption was less than 10 megawatts, a tiny fraction of the country's total electricity consumption of 2.83 billion megawatts. By 2010, though, China hopes to be generating and consuming about 300 megawatts of solar energy, roughly equivalent to what Japan, the world's second largest consumer of solar energy, used last year. (Business Week Asia April 11, 2007)

The photovoltaic panel I decided on for my ham radio station is a 13 watt panel made by Shenzhen and sold under various labels including Topray, Sunshine, Velleman, etc.  Many Internet websites carry this product with a price that ranged between $67.00 and $139.00.   Of course, the least expensive prices for these panels were on websites with connections to China.  They were charging $67 for the panel and $17 for shipping and handling.  The U.S.A. based websites were charging upwards of $139 plus shipping.  On eBay, there were dozens of the $67.00 offerings by many different vendors, but they all seemed to be from one and the same source: a Chinese source.  We're not going to get people to invest in solar power if U.S.A. retailers gouge consumers who are interested in buying them.  Charging a premium for niche solar installation is counterproductive.

What is wrong with this picture?  The self-appointed greatest nation in history cannot put its ever-increasingly unemployed people to work mass-producing solar panels.  It is as if we are impotent in putting our people to work in industries with obvious long-term benefit.  The country that made it a national goal to put its citizens on the moon remains remarkable in its inability to produce the energy products necessary for its own future well-being.  Why is that?  Why is it that foreign competitors have taken the lead in cellular network infrastructure building with massive access to digital and Internet services, hybrid and alternative fuel automobiles, etc.?  

If the free marketeers claims of competition is correct why is it then that we in the United States are capable of competing in fewer and fewer arenas?  Perhaps, being the world's leader in war-making and armament sales and production has created a myopic vision of who and what we are and where we are going?  The neo-liberal economic model is creating in the U.S a class of people who living standards are falling and whose income is quickly making it impossible for them to purchase not only the few products made in the United States, but soon, the products made in China.  If the neo-liberals have their way, after the Chinese worker is exploited by the owning class their jobs will be exported to Lesotho, Rwanda, Sudan, or some other country where working for a few pennies is better than starvation.  When the solar panels are made in Burundi will we in the United States be able to afford them when there are no jobs available for us?

In the January 1, 2004, Wired magazine wrote,

The cost of installing solar energy is finally within reach for many Americans, but people who have waited for this seemingly opportune time are being told to move to the back of the line. U.S. manufacturers of solar panels are sending products to the lucrative German and Japanese markets, casting a shadow over the domestic solar industry....Solar panels are in short supply because many manufacturers are sending their available product to Germany and Japan, where they can be sold for more, according to solar energy consultant Paul Maycock of PV Energy Systems. He said that while demand in the United States increased last year, production actually went down slightly as large photovoltaic manufacturers including BP and Sharp moved production facilities to Europe.

The so-called free market may be good at determining how to maximize profits, but is has failed in providing people what they need for a basic decent life that is free from the vagaries of the owning class.  Of course, the free market is not designed to do this.  It is designed to exploit these vagaries, to control the population by orchestrating work and buy habits, but funneling the wealth workers produce up to the top of the capitalist pyramid.  The free market prefers worker anxiety over worker security.  The latter necessitates a constant unemployment rate where surplus labor goes begging for low paying and dead end jobs.  

We'll See

Jim Jubak writing for MSN Money states,

Government support in the form of rebates to buyers of solar equipment (the U.S. approach) or in the form of guaranteed above-market prices for the purchase of electricity from solar-power generators (the European approach) is crucial to reaching that point. Without the economies of scale created by the demand growth generated by these subsidies, solar costs won't fall fast enough to hit parity on that schedule.

The "point" that Jubak is making about solar is power price parity with that of traditional fuel power production costs.  I have yet to see any "government support" that would entice me to significantly expand my solar panel capacity.  I'm ready to do so, but I am not about to spend $20,000 or more for solar power that would be incapable of running my well pump and refrigerator.  Of course, I can always replace these power hogs with solar compatible lower power consumption devices, but where is the money going to come from for that?  

I say, let's put any able-bodied U.S. worker who wants to work in decent paying jobs that can crank out solar power production products, appliances and appliances.  Let's set a national goal for the United States to be the world's leader in creating power from the sun, and wind.  Let's get our heads out of the fossil fuel and war-making hole and put it where the sun does shine.  Meanwhile, I am going to spend the $84 and buy my Chinese made 13-watt solar panel.  

©2008 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD
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